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Truckin’ Thursdays: Honoring Mike Mittler’s Legacy at Gateway

Frontstretch’s Truck Series content is presented by American Trucks

Just moments before the pre-race ceremonies began for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway last month, the news that many had been dreading hit Twitter. Long-time Truck Series owner Mike Mittler, who led MB Motorsports through 24 seasons in the series, had lost his battle with cancer.

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The outpouring of support, almost immediately and in the days that followed, showed what a tremendous influence Mittler had, not only on the series but on many individuals throughout racing.

 

 

 

 

This weekend features a race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway that will honor Mittlerʻs memory after the facility announced a couple of weeks ago that it would dedicate the redesigned race winner’s trophy to his honor and rename it the Mittler Memorial Trophy. The facility revealed the new trophy, which will be presented annually by Mittler’s wife Beverly and crew, Wednesday evening (June 19). What you can’t see in the photo below is text that says “For his contributions to the NASCAR Truck Series.”

The track will also hand out wristbands with “This one’s for Mike” on them, and crew members will stand on the pit road wall at lap 63 in Mittler’s honor. As a part of honoring his contributions to the Truck Series and the track, all employees and family members of Mittler’s will be hosted by the speedway as guests of CEO Curtis Francois and GM Blair.

“We encourage all fans to wear blue and yellow – Mittler’s colors — to the race on June 22,” Blair said. “Our entire team was saddened by Mike’s passing. He was a great friend and loyal supporter of our track. I had known Mike a long time before my move to St. Louis and he welcomed me and treated me like family upon my move. Mike was special. He was a great man who inspired many.

“Mike understood the importance of our track to the St. Louis community and he was working hand in hand with us to revitalize NASCAR racing at our venue. Mike was part of our family.

“Whenever we have a NASCAR race at this track, Mike will be a part of that race. His goal was to see us reach our full potential, and he remained involved in our ultimate goal of bringing more NASCAR racing to St. Louis until the very end. We will keep working hard to make Mike proud and working hard on the mission we started many years ago.”

Because Mittler made such an impact on those he came across throughout his NASCAR career, winning this trophy, in general, is something that will be full of prestige and likely plenty of emotions to go along with it.

“You’ve never met a nicer guy, more of a class act who gave so many people an opportunity to get to where they are today,” Matt Crafton said in an interview at Texas Motor Speedway a couple of weeks ago. “Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray; there’s tons of them out there. That guy spent a lot or all of this money helping these guys get to where they are, and for Gateway to put his name on the trophy and put his name on that whole race is super awesome.

“It’d be awesome to get that and get the monkey off my back at that place as well,” he continued. “To get that trophy with Mike Mittler’s name on it would be very sweet.”

Truck Series owner DJ Copp, whose team has made just three starts this season, echoed Crafton’s thoughts about the new trophy.

“I think it’s great. It just goes further to show what kind of person [Mike] was,” He was unique. He had no problem telling you where to go when you did something wrong. If you were soft-skinned, you were going to let it bother you. If you realized he was getting onto you because you screwed something up and you swallowed your pride and admitted that you weren’t doing it right, you deserved what you were getting.

“At the beginning of it, I didn’t know him, but I would assume Mike ruffled some feathers. But over time, he had everybody’s respect because he didn’t pull his punches, you knew where he was coming from. He was just open and honest. He held no grudges.”

MB Motorsports made its first Truck Series start in 1995 with Tony Roper behind the wheel, and more than 23 years later, Jesse Iwuji made the final start with Mittler’s name listed as the owner. Over that span, the team never won a race nor run for a championship, but it did field trucks for countless drivers who attribute the beginning of their careers to Mittler and his efforts.

Kenny Irwin Jr., Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Justin Allgaier and Carl Edwards. Those are just some of the names that made their first NASCAR starts in Mittler’s equipment.

“When I came through, it was an avenue to get an opportunity and to go out and race and to just learn,” Regan Smith told Frontstretch last Fall. “I did my first Truck race with him. I’d never been in anything other than [the X-1R] Pro Cup [Series] at that point and probably looked like I hadn’t even been in that the first race that I ran.

“[Mittler] was really good about teaching and helping you understand, ‘OK, this is what you need to do. This is what you need to look for. Those guys, they work their butts off and they love racing. He’s had such a history with so many drivers and it was cool to be a part of it.”

Of course, there have been countless others who ran for the team, but none performed quite as well as Edwards did during his seven-race stint in 2002, which included an eighth-place finish at Kansas Speedway. Only Bobby Pierce, who finished second and sixth at Eldora Speedway in 2015 and 2017, respectively has bested that result.

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“Mike Mittler has meant a lot to me. My real breakout race, the thing that really got my career going was our run here in I guess that was 2002,” Edwards said during media availability at Kansas Speedway in 2008. “We ran eighth, which was a victory. That was a huge, huge day for all of us. If it weren’t for Mike Mittler, I definitely wouldn’t be standing here, that’s for sure.”

The following season, Edwards went full-time racing with Roush Fenway Racing’s Truck Series program, which today no longer exists, and Mittler was quick to send him on his way, despite the work the two had put into their time together.

“I fully expected him to ask me or try to force me to stay there and drive his truck because he put so much into it,” Edwards continued. “He stood up, smiled, he was as happy as I was. He shook my hand and said, ‘whatever I can do to help you, you gotta go.’ That was cool. He put himself aside in what he needed for me.”

Mittler was the kind of guy that was selfless and helped those around him, regardless of whether they were associated with his team or not.

“A year ago this race weekend at Gateway, he found out that we were having transmission problems,” Reaume Brothers Racing owner Josh Reaume said in a phone interview. “He actually sent one of his crew guys back to their shop to pick up a transmission that they had to bring to us, his competitor.

“That’s how much of a racer he was. He was such a true racer that any time he had something to borrow to help a team — a competitor. I keep saying that because there are so few; it’s not really common. It’s a pretty good example of how he was all the time.”

Jordan Anderson shared a couple of similar stories. In fact, the first year he joined the series in 2015, Mittler helped him out several times when he didn’t have the right part or nut or bolt to get his truck back out on the track.

“He was always willing to open the trailer up and help,” Anderson explained. “Whatever it was to help you get your truck on the racetrack, Mike was always that guy you would go to pick his brain, ask his advice or ask for a part or piece to get you back going. He was always that guy you looked to do that.”

But perhaps the coolest story Anderson shared about Mittler’s selflessness was a time in 2015 when their truck broke down near Troy, Mo.

“I called Mike and I told him what happened, and Mike actually put us up in a hotel for a couple of nights and gave us a tour of his race shop,” Anderson said. “[He] gave us a suburban to drive for a week and a half while we were out here. He took us under his wing to make sure we were safe and got us hooked up with a guy that could fix our truck.

“He definitely loved racing and the people in it. There’s not many more like Mike that are out there. He definitely was a great guy and sacrificed a lot for the sport as a whole.”

This season, DJ Copp, who had previously partnered with Mittler, opted to change his team’s truck number to run the No. 63 in honor of the contributions made by the longtime owner.

“Mike [Mittler] and I have worked together extensively over the years, and I couldn’t be prouder to pay tribute to him this season,” Copp said in a February team release. “Mike has been in the Truck Series since its inception. He has given some pretty big names their start in NASCAR, including Carl Edwards and Justin Allgaier. If it wasn’t for people like Mike who have paved the way, we wouldn’t have the opportunities that we have now to participate in NASCAR.”

Copp Motorsports has only made three starts so far this season, and Mittler was the driving force behind the team taking off the last several events.

“Our plan was to run all year, but after Atlanta [Motor Speedway], I had some things happen,” Copp explained about why the team hasn’t been back after its first three races. “The season started rough; NASCAR rule changes given the Ilmor motor. We were in a position where we couldn’t make the races. I have good trucks, I have good equipment. I just didn’t have the motor. It made it difficult, and I called Mike after [Las] Vegas [Motor Speedway].

“He said to me, ‘Why are you going to keep going?’ I said, ‘I feel like I have to.’ He said ‘NASCAR changed the rules. Attempts don’t matter for provisionals anymore. He just said it like that. I said I just feel like I need to be there. He said, ‘Does it make business sense? Then don’t do it.”

Copp’s biggest concern was that he made a promise, and he knew how much Mittler enjoyed seeing the No. 63 truck on the track.

“He said ‘You don’t do it for me, you don’t do it for anybody if it doesn’t make sense. It’s simple, you do it for yourself. Don’t do it for anyone else, especially me.’

“At that time, that’s when I realized it’s a business piece and the business piece has to come first,” Copp said. “If it doesn’t, you can’t have the second aspect of it. I knew that, but I was clouded in my decision making when he just made it really simple and helped me prioritize. That’s why we haven’t been back to the racetrack.”

And when Mittler gave Copp advice, he wasn’t afraid to follow it. After all, the two had formed a pretty solid bond throughout a couple of years working together.

In fact, Copp recalled fondly the time he and Mittler met at Kansas Speedway in 2016. The two both tried to buy qualifying tires off of a team that didn’t make the race, and Copp was quoted a higher price after Mittler had already made an agreement. Of course, Copp accepted the offer, leaving both owners confused as to what had just transpired.

“It didn’t start off on the best of terms, but we ended up working through it and talking nonchalantly,” Copp said in a phone interview last week. “Then at Loudon, New Hampshire later that year, he blew a motor in practice with Akinori Ogata driving, and I walked over to him and I said, ‘Do you have a motor?’ and he said, ‘No.’ I said I have one that you can use, and his words were who the f&%$ does that? I said, ‘I do; you’ve given a lot to this industry and helped me out without even knowing, and I want to give back.’

“He gave me this weird look off his left shoulder – I remember it plain as day. He ran my motor that weekend and the rest of the year, we did our best to help each other out.”

The following year, the pair officially partnered under NASCAR’s guidelines and worked together to put the Nos. 63 and 83 trucks on the track. The two did things for one another without asking for anything in return.

“A lot of the racing industry these days, people have their hand out first, and that’s not the way he and I worked,” Copp said. “We didn’t measure the value of what one was giving to the other. If somebody needed something, we did it.”

Beyond being a true racer at heart and a longtime Truck Series owner, Mittler was a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle and a great uncle. He will be deeply missed by all of those whose lives he impacted, regardless of how minor he may have thought the interaction was.

“He gave, and they’re giving back now in a tribute,” Copp said as he summed it all up. “I think that’s amazing.”

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About Beth Lunkenheimer

Beth Lunkenheimer
Content Director Beth heads up management of our 30-person staff, acting as Tom’s main assistant with technology and personnel while working as Frontstretch’s Truck Series expert. The author of Truckin’ Thursdays and the coordinator of the site’s pre and post-race coverage, she also runs a periodic charity column that spotlights when NASCAR gives back. A childhood transplant to Texas, Beth is a 13-year writing veteran who has contributed content to BRANDT and Athlon Sports, among other outlets.

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